‘Wild Things’ At 25: How A Sleazy Movie Got So Many A-Listers And It Worked

When Wild Things hit theaters in 1998, it was the first day of Spring March 20 and the movie had numerous A-listers on the cast in a movie that includes greed, sex and murder. Wild Things seems like one of those movies you’d come across on Skinemax with Shannon Whirry, Shannon Tweed and Andrew Stevens in the cast along with some fallen from grace actor like Harry Hamlin or Jan-Michael Vincent.

But Wild Things starred Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, Bill Murray, Robert Wagner, Neve Campbell and Theresa Russell all in crucial roles. Did the wrong script get passed along to a big-time Hollywood producer? Mandalay Entertainment, founded by Peter Gruber, was the production company and it was distributed by Columbia Pictures.

After Basic Instinct was released, Hollywood producers dug through a lot of the Skinemax scripts for any that had legs on it or that could be tweaked for the big time. Well, the writer is Stephen Peters, who previously had a “Story by” credit on the 1993 movie Dead Center which was written by Menahem Golan, formerly of the Cannon Group. And if you know about him or that company, it’s a wonder this script found its way out of the trash can someone must’ve thrown it in before thinking they could do the same thing with Basic Instinct. Get a few big name stars, keep the budget as low as possible and release it during the early spring so it doesn’t have to compete with summer blockbusters and can still turn a reasonable profit.

Set in southern Florida in an affluent coastal community of Blue Bay, which is not far from the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area but also not far from the swampy Everglades, it revolves around a high school guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Dillon) who is accused of rape by Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards). Kelly’s mother, Sandra (Russell) is a wealthy socialite who spends half her time half naked if she’s not getting laid by her latest boy toy. The Van Ryans are the wealthiest family in the area, but there’s a dark secret as Kelly’s father, committed suicide a year earlier.

Kelly, Sandra, their lawyer, Tom Baxter (Wagner) go to the police and demand Lombardo is arrested. However, after hearing Kelly’s statement, neither Sgt. Ray Duquette (Bacon) nor his partner Det. Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega) are so sure if Kelly is telling the truth. Lombardo isn’t immediately arrested nor does he lose his job as the authorities are doing more research. Lombardo has hired the legal counsel of Kenneth Bowden (Murray), a sleazy ambulance-chaser who has a collage of photos of his “injured” clients with their settlement checks. Bowden himself wears a neck brace as he’s trying to work a scam himself. Lombardo says that Kelly has a dark history that not too many people know about as she went on a drug and alcohol bender following her father’s suicide.

The local prosecutor, Bryce Hunter (Jeff Perry), isn’t too quick to file charges unless Duquette and Perez can find some more concrete evidence. They interview Suzie Toller (Campbell), a fellow classmate of Kelly’s, who claims that Lombardo raped her as well. Suzie is a young women with a troubled past that includes drugs and spent some time in a juvenile detention center. She lives out in the Glades with her grandmother, Ruby (Carrie Snodgrass), and uncle, Walter (Marc Macaulay), a dim-witted redneck alligator wrangler at a roadside attraction Ruby owns and operates. Suzie is pretty much given her own privacy as she lives in her own camper trailer on the property which is also a mobile park.

With two people accusing Lombardo, he is arrested and goes to trial. However, things take a turn when under cross-examination, Bowden questions if Suzie is telling the truth claiming she’s mad at him really over having to spend time in a juvenile detention center the previous summer. She had gotten into trouble and when she tried to contact Lombardo for help, she couldn’t reach him as it was the summer. Suzie breaks down and says it was just a reason to get back at Lombardo as he had a relationship in the past with Sandra. Kelly gets angry and tries to attack Suzie but is detained as the case is dismissed.

Bowden arranges a settlement with Sandra for defamation and false accusations. Lombardo gets $8.5 million which was part of the trust set aside for Kelly, who publicly lashes out at Lombardo at school. MORE SPOILERS AHEAD!!. It’s later revealed this was a plan Kelly had orchestrated with both Lombardo and Suzie so Kelly could get her money early and Suzie could make Duquette look bad. He had arrested her in the past and fatally shot a friend (possible boyfriend) of hers who was a Seminole claiming it was self-defense.

However, Duquette suspects their plan but neither Perez nor Hunter are wanting to entertain it because it can be more damaging. Duquette sneaks on to the Van Ryan property and videotapes Kelly and Suzie talking on the phone with Lombardo and then getting into a fight before kissing and making out. This further angers Hunter who keeps warning Duquette to let it go.

But things get more complicated when Suzie goes missing. We saw her with Kelly and Lombardo previously hanging out on a beach, but it’s implied Lombardo bludgeoned Suzie with a bottle when Kelly wasn’t around and dumped her body in the Glades so the alligators could feed on it. Duquette finds some teeth and other evidence that might have belonged to Suzie. Hunter thinks it’s Kelly and gives Duquette a final warning about not bothering Lombardo.

Lombardo leaves for the tropics but not before showing Perez some confidential information on Kelly. Duquette goes to the Van Ryans and we hear gunshots fired in the guesthouse where Kelly is. Duquette is injured in the shoulder but his supervisors fire him claiming he repeatedly disobeyed direct orders. However, they conclude that Kelly killed Suzie out of revenge and close the case.

Later, Duquette shows up in the tropics and it’s revealed he’s been in cahoots with Lombardo for half of the settlement money. They go out on a sailboat where Lombardo tries to make it look like an accident as Duquette falls overboard in the ocean, but he gets back on the boat only to be hit with a speargun fired by Suzie, revealed to be alive. Duquette stumbles off the boat and dies as his body drowns. Yet, Lombardo is poisoned by Suzie and knocks him overboard.

However, as she is visiting the gator farm, Perez notices that Walter has brought a new pick-up truck and selling a boat that belonged to Suzie. Walter lets him slip that Suzie was once tested for her IQ and shown to be a genius. Over the credits, we discover that Suzie instigated the whole frame up as Lombardo had a history of sleeping with his students, including Kelly. There were pictures she used to frame him.

Lombardo and Duquette were actually working together also from the start and Suzie herself pulled her own teeth out to make it look like she had been severely beaten. Duquette shot Kelly and then used one of the guns at the Van Ryan house to shoot himself. However, he was just supposed to frame Van Ryan. But in the final twist, it’s revealed that Suzie knew Lombardo could only get an ambulance chaser like Bowden and had been working with him from the start to channel the settlement money into separate accounts no one could trace.

The ending is ambiguous as Suzie takes a suitcase full of “walking around money” and leaves a drink for Bowden. Some theories have speculated she poisoned it too as Bowden is the final loose end. However, we see Boweden raising the glass to take the drink before the movie ends. Bowden tells her to “be good.” But if she did poison the drink, it’s possible Bowden might have left some information around in the event of his suspicious death to point to Suzie.

Regardless, it is one crazy movie as the characters double-cross and triple-cross each other. If anything else, it shows you what greed will make some people do. Lombardo had been dating Baxter’s daughter, Barbara (Jennifer Taylor), and even though he was a guidance counselor probably wasn’t making much money to live an affluent lifestyle. Lombaro is like many male educators you see who only gets into the field so he can have summers off and hang around younger women. The movie opens with his POV as he high-fives the jocks but finds the co-eds eyeing him as he walks past them.

Originally, Robert Downey Jr. was being consider for Lombardo but this was during a period in which RDJ was in the depths of a severe substance abuse problem and had to drop out as he was uninsurable. I don’t think RDJ would’ve been a good choice. He can play a sleazy southern private investigator as he did in The Gingerbread Man, but to play Lombardo, you need an actor like Dillon. It’s revealed Lombardo went to University of Miami on an athletic scholarship. Dillon looks like a former jock who goes into education because he planned on going pro but it didn’t happen.

It’s been reported that Lombardo and Duquette were supposed to have a sexual relationship but Bacon said the financial finaciers didn’t want it. Sex plays a big role in this movie even though there’s very little nudity. Kelly is nude during a sex scene and we see Kevin Bacon’s strip during a shower scene, but it’s more tame. During a meeting with Perez, you can feel the sexual tension as Lombardo tries to flirt with her and Ruben-Vega plays it like she’s interested in him. Director John McNaughton knows how to add eroticism to a movie in how many of the characters seem to be showing off their bodies to entice others.

I’d have to say the characters are mostly pansexual. Kelly and Suzie have sex as they have sex with Lombardo. It’s revealed that Duquette was sleeping around with some prostitutes at a cheap motel and implied that Lombardo is also having sex with them. While the sex scene between Duquette and Lombardo might have worked better today, I can understand why it was cut. The only character who doesn’t give into their carnal lust is Perez, who functions as the movie’s purity. She’s also the only main character who isn’t killed off or a killer.

Like I said, the movie teases its sex appeal unlike a Skinamax movie which would’ve had has sexual content and nudity without the whole run time. McNaughton, who had made Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was looking for a more commercial movie after he had made Mad Dog and Glory and Normal Life. The latter, starring Luke Perry and Ashley Judd as a married couple who turn to crime out of desperation, suffered the poor misfortune of being released on HBO despite getting good reviews. Produced on a $20 million budget, it made $67 million worldwide, not near a big blockbuster but enough for the studio to make several direct-to-video sequels which I haven’t seen.

It’s quite possible the A-list celebrities in the cast make the movie better. Murray adds some comic relief to his short role and Wagner does his usual schtick. The finale also appears eerily similar to the the boating incident involving his wife, Natalie Wood, in which she drowned. Bacon slides into the role a sleazy cop who is corrupt. There’s even some suspicion that Perez knows about Duquette’s dark history but can’t say anything. Campbell made this following her roles in the first two Scream movies and while she was on Party of Five and it’s nice to see her as the bad guy who isn’t too bad.

Some might call it a guilty pleasure but watching it, you get the feeling everyone read the script, laughed and said “Why not?” Its rare to hear of a movie production where everyone seems to have gotten along. Thankfully, all the actors knew that were making sleaze and had fun with it. And because they didn’t take it seriously, it works better on repeated viewings. As for the scene in which Bacon goes full-frontal, he had a “no-nudity” clause in his contract and being credited also as a producer, he could’ve have sued himself.

While the movie’s popularity has waned over the years, I remember when it came out, it was all people could talk about for a while.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

3 thoughts on “‘Wild Things’ At 25: How A Sleazy Movie Got So Many A-Listers And It Worked

  1. Never thought about the possibly ambiguous ending before. Thanks for mentioning that and for your review. Like many great twists, all the ones for Wild Things certainly clarified the film more in retrospect. Very interesting role for Neve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t recognize it either until a decade ago when someone pointed it out. It would make sense for Suzie to finish off Bowden but she’s probably in a non-extraditionary country so it’d be harder for her if charges were filed.

      Liked by 1 person

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